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By Gary Laderman
A recent Pew survey indicating that one in five Americans now identify as religiously “unaffiliated” is getting a lot of attention. It confirms previous surveys that show the “nones” is the fastest growing segment of the religious landscape, and commentators and prognosticators are trying to figure out what this all means.
The political implications are noted: the religiously unaffiliated are now a majority in the Democratic Party. So are the theological implications: not simply atheists or non-believers, a majority of “nones” still believe in a God, or gods, or something spiritual. Perhaps most significant are the demographic implications: a third of people under 30 identify as unaffiliated.
According to some, there can be only one conclusion: Religion has no future in America. More important, it seems that Christianity and other minority traditions in America with very small numbers — like Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and so on — are on shaky ground. Given the willingness of many Americans to now proclaim their freedom from the shackles of religious institutions and identities, the nation’s soul will surely grow even more profane and corrupt.
But is this the only way to read the numbers? Does religion only refer to institutional identities?
The question we need to ask to get at the dynamic, still thriving spiritual lives of Americans now is not “What religion do you affiliate with?” Nor is it the simple-minded, “Do you believe in God?” The question instead should be “What is sacred to you?”
People in the 21st century are religious in more ways than we tend to acknowledge, and don’t rely only on the Bible to ground their spiritual lives.
For example, the life of the nation is sacred to many, and American civil religion remains a powerful force in our society. Americans sacrifice their lives for the nation and the values associated with it, like freedom, democracy, and free markets.
Family life and commitments to parents and children are spiritual matters, even with “traditional” families no longer in the majority. Meaningful and loving connections are sacred regardless of institutional affiliation. Increasing numbers of interfaith families demonstrate how Americans negotiate religious values when faced with raising children, sustaining marriage or facing the death of parents.
Even science can be religious to some, a sacred pursuit that reveals ultimate truths and fundamental values to live by; Albert Einstein’s views on religion are in the news and shed light on how science and religion overlap in his life: “If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”
What an exciting time to be religious! The constraints and authority of traditional religions are diminishing, and Americans now more than ever can speak publicly about what is sacred and spiritually enlivening without fear of being cast out and branded idol worshipers or heretics.
Gary Laderman, author of the ebook “American Civil Religion, ” is professor of American Religious Cultures and History at Emory University.